Post in our forum for parents, teens - You! - at

Friday, July 09, 2004

New family PC risks, Part 2: Games!

Last week we looked at the phenomenon of invasive Web sites and pop-ups. This week a heads-up for gamers of all ages.... If your child plays Unreal Tournament or other multiplayer games that run on the basic Unreal game code, your PC could become a hacker playground. "As they develop more online capabilities, games have become an increasingly popular avenue for online miscreants," CNET reports. The "miscreants" could compromise the Unreal engine's "security tool" and use it to take over the computer your child uses to play these games. We asked CorePROTECT CEO and father-of-six Tim LaFazia what he thought of this new PC security development. Click here for his view.

What's on your mind?

The SafeKids/NetFamilyNewsletter is working on a feature that features you! You might call it "What's on your mind (concerning kids & tech)?" We'd love to receive questions, concerns, stories about kids' use of Net-related technologies - IM, file-sharing, games, blogs, Web sites, etc. - at your house. We can reach out to a wonderful range of expertise to answer your questions, but many of you have come up with your own great solutions, and it's these real-life answers that are often more helpful to fellow parents than all the professional expertise in the world. We'd like to publish many of them in our newsletter and blog. So please email me anytime at Thanks in advance for your contributions!

Gamers: More and more going online

If they don't know already, parents of gamers will want to know how easy Sony and Microsoft are making it for console gamers to go online, link up with other players, "form alliances and socialize in groups," the New York Times reports. We're not referring to computer gamers; we're talking about the PlayStation 2 and XBox gamers who typically start playing at much younger ages. Computer gamers were always necessarily a little more techie and knew how to go online; now it's easy for gamers of all ages. "Once a console is hooked up to an Internet connection, players merely click a button that takes them directly to the online game portal," according to the Times. More than 10% of the 25 million PlayStation 2s sold are online-capable, but about 1.2 million PS2 users are playing online so far, according to market research. Microsoft says 1 million out of 14 million Xbox users have bought the online kit and subscribe to Xbox Live, while - for Nintendo GameCube - only two games are available for online play (by contrast, Sony expects to have 100 PS2 games available for online play by Christmas, up from 65 now, the Times reports).

Peer-to-peer gambling

First it was pretty much just music (widely shared with file-sharing technology). Then porn, viruses, and spyware (see our "File-sharing realities for families"). Now casinos are using P2P technology in a big way. "Peer-to-peer betting, which has been increasingly popular in Europe, Asia and Australia, is one of the fastest-growing online gambling enterprises," the New York Times reports in "Gambling Sites Offering Ways to Let Any User Be the Bookie." The US-based P2P gambling service that will illustrate this phenomenon will be Betbug, set to launch July 21. It's "remarkably similar to file-sharing programs like Kazaa and Morpheus, which let people exchange music and other media over the Internet. Anyone downloading the Betbug software will be able to propose a wager, then reach out to everyone else on the network to find a taker for the bet." The US Justice Department has lately been after offshore Internet gambling casinos, but Betbug's creators use a similar argument to that of the file-sharing networks: They say they should be exempt from US law because they're not acting as a central bookmaker - just making software available to users who choose what they want to do with it. Just to hedge their bets, though, they're basing Betbug in Toronto. Of course, where child Net users are concerned, file-sharing networks with no central databases or participation in the goings-on are passing the buck to parents.

Firefox not the perfect solution either

Just as computer security experts have been suggesting that we try alternative browsers like Opera or Firefox, the people behind Firefox announced it too has a security flaw. This only affects PCs with the Windows XP operating system, ZDNet UK reports. So if you're an XP family and you heeded the experts' advice and switched browsers, you definitely need to click to this page on the Mozilla site, download the patch and follow the instructions (they're a lot less user-friendly than Microsoft's security patches, we have to say - to Microsoft's credit). "Mozilla developers said that future versions of the Firefox Web browser would have automatic update notifications that would make it easier to notify users about security fixes," according to ZDNet. See "Spyware & an 8-year-old" below for more on browsers.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

Teen romance, online-style

"Even the most personal conversations now occur without human contact," reports college student and contributor Amy Sennett in the Washington Post. In her entertaining article about the electronic elements of dating, she tells us that, these days, instant messaging (IM) is the "communication lifeline" of young adults, and "the rules of virtual conversation and courtship are no more simple or well defined than they were in Jane Austen's world." There are no fewer conventions with email- and IM-enhanced relationships, you see. "One of the new conventions is that an email carries more weight than a casual IM conversation," where mere flirting occurs. "E-mail, at least for my guy friends, is one rung down on the emotional ladder from marriage proposals and shared bank accounts," Amy writes. "As a result, hundreds of thousands of confused college women like me now decode these messages as if we are searching for hidden professions of love in the Rosetta stone." Amy's piece focuses on the nuanced impact of various technologies on new friendships, more than on the ethics and etiquette involved at the other end - breaking up online. Is it a cop out not let someone down face-to-face? All this is still being worked out, and it's a fascinating process needing plenty of TLC on the observer/parent's part (we would love to hear from you and your son or daughter if you have stories of this type to tell - email

Another layer of this social-techno tangle kids face, not dealt with in Amy's article, is texting on a cell phone - probably closer to IM in lightness of touch and brevity of message. One mom told us her high-schooler uses his phone more "for quick messages to figure out meeting logistics with friends and his family" (see my 5/7 issue on cell phone parental controls). Maybe phones kick in when the relationship is already in full swing!

Controlling kid TV-viewing

Some parents have heard of the V-Chip, but few know what it is or how to make it filter out TV programming they don't want their kids to see. ZDNet home electronics specialist Steve Kovsky calls the V-Chip - legally required in every TV over 13" manufactured since January 2000 - parents' "first line of defense." But it isn't always user-friendly (you can always read your TV's user manual), Steve says, so for parents seeking better, more convenient parental controls, he recommends DVRs (digital video recorders) such as TiVo and ReplayTV or, even better, Windows XP Media Center. All of these options, of course, add a significant chunk of change to filtering efforts.

School tech tidbits

Almost two-thirds of K-12 teachers say that the availability of computers improves student performance on standardized tests, and 77% say they don't have enough computers for students in their classrooms, according to a "Teachers Talk Tech" poll unveiled at the recent National Education Computing Conference. Another interesting highlight, from a survey by NetDay, found that "teachers think their students learn about technology from their friends first and from their teachers secondly. In reality, students feel that friends, self-exploration, family, and TV and radio ads all have a stronger influence than teacher recommendations." That survey also found that 71% of teachers said they would use students to provide tech support or expertise in the classroom (interestingly, older teachers were more comfortable with student tech support than those 29 and under).

As for negative online encounters in school: TechLearning's InstantPoll found that 75% of school tech decisionmakers give their districts relatively high marks for adequately protecting students from inappropriate content. But despite their best efforts, 59% report incidents of students accessing inappropriate Web content at school in the past year. The content they're referring to was games (45%), pornography (39%), and music file-sharing (19%).

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Patch that Windows PC!

If your family computer runs on Windows (and you're still using the Explorer browser to surf), get this brand-new patch for that Explorer problem we featured last week. That patch page at Microsoft has instructions for home users right near the top. The Explorer flaw "allows online thieves to steal computer passwords and private data such as bank account numbers," the Washington Post reports, adding: "The patch does not fix the problem, instead it turns off the function inside Internet Explorer that contains the flaw. Microsoft is working on another patch to repair the hole." This article in CNET, "Another Internet Explorer flaw found," confirms our troubles are not over. But did we need confirmation?!

Spyware & an 8-year-old

We keep hearing about this thing called "spyware" - Congress is certainly confronting it (see Reuters report) - but many parents aren't exactly sure what it means. Well, a recent commentary in The Register literally brings the issue home....

"One of my friends called me in a panic the other day. It seems his eight-year-old daughter was surfing the Internet, searching for Barbie dolls ... when something bad popped up on the screen. She may not have understood what she saw, but she knew it was bad and so she called Mom and Dad. You can probably guess what popped on the screen. That's right, a page with explicit, graphic pornography. But wait, there's more. It gets worse." The site she clicked to somehow installed porn images all over the computer - from the desktop to the browser's Quick Links toolbar to the Favorites list. "The browser was also redirected, or 'hijacked' to display an explicit porn site as the home page." The dad tried two different anti-spyware programs, and they detected it but couldn't remove it. The spyware could update itself and did so to a newer version that the removal software couldn't affect. The dad, who works in the software industry, "spent significant time figuring out how to manually delete a malicious, system-level application that he never installed."

The problem, PC security experts say, largely lies at the Explorer browser's doorstep, and the reason is its popularity (about 80% of the world's Net users use Explorer), which spells significant impact for anyone with bad intentions. Even so, the odds are against your children having an experience like the above, but - to avoid it - you can switch browsers (to Safari on the Mac or Firefox or Opera on the PC). USAToday this week ran reviews of these and other browser alternatives. Or turn up Explorer's security setting to "high" (the Washington Post helpfully explains how). And CNET reports that more and more security software companies, such as PestPatrol, are offering consumers anti-spyware information on the Web.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Cell phone injures teen

It wasn't a serious injury but something parents might want to know about. The 16-year-old in California, who'd had the phone in her back pocket, was treated for second-degree burns and shortly thereafter released from the hospital. A fire investigator said the phone in question, whose battery reportedly caused "fist-size flames," was a Kyocera Wireless 2325, CNET reports. The US Consumer Product Safety Commission "has yet to decide what to do" and - as of this writing - Verizon Wireless, which sold the phone, was trying to get more information from the girl's family and Kyocera didn't return the reporter's calls. CNET adds that "it's not the first reported instance of a Kycera phone malfunctioning. All of the incidents have raised concerns over the safety of a device jammed into pockets, handbags or pressed against a person's face."